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What exactly is Tai Chi?

Posted by Casey C.

Tai Chi
Answers (4)
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Tai Chi is a Martial Art. On the surface, Tai Chi may not seem like a martial art, because you'll see classes with old people doing very slow movements. That is not the full story, however. These slow movements originate from martial arts practice; not only do they increase the chi in the practitioner, but they can form the basis of many martial arts moves. So you may find two types of Tai Chi available: One, the slow, meditative version, which is often taught at community colleges as a relaxation technique, and two, the full martial art, that teaches fighting and self-defense (often known as Tai Chi Chuan).
An internal martial art. Tai Chi, or Taiji Chuan is an internal martial art that literally means grand ultimate fist or supreme ultimate fist. As is evident in the yin/yang Tai Chi diagram, the central principle involves using "3 ounces of strength to deflect a ton of force" and movements are largely circular for this reason, as it redirects the energy from the opponent rather than use force against force. The slow exercises done for health enhancement is forms practice, these are actually based on the I-Ching and when viewed in the meridian system in Chinese medicine certain forms can be seen to be dialating specific energy channels and thus promotes the flow of chi or vital energy. The energetic nature is why Tai Chi is considered in internal art as opposed to others which rely largely on musculoskeletal strength. When practiced as a martial art, there is also "push hands" exercises which is essentially a type of sparring. The goal of push hands is to find a point in which the opponent is off balance and use it to push them over, relying on the sensitivity of "listening" and "sticking" energy to sense your opponents state rather than an exertion of force.
You won't find an "exact" answer to the question "What exactly is Tai Chi?" Ask a dozen Tai Chi teachers, you'll get a dozen different answers.
But if you look at the answers you get, you'll find that they reveal more about the teacher than about Tai Chi in general. The answers generally indicate the teacher's background, methods, and their approach to Tai Chi.
While there are many variations, most of the answers fall into three categories:
1. Tai Chi as a set of movements or forms
2. Tai Chi as a set of principles
3. Tai Chi as a set of skills

When most people think of Tai Chi, they think of the first two methods. For most people, their first classes in Tai Chi consist of learning choreographed series of movements, called "sets" or "forms". The instructor may also include discussions of "principles" - general observations about Tai Chi, its movements, and its relation to other arts.
The third approach is a little more rare. It views Tai Chi not as movements or principles, but as a series of "experiences" to go through and/or "experiments" to try. Movements and principles may be taught, but students are expected to perform personal experiments to check the results - positive or negative - of these principles and movements. The purpose is to build *skill* as opposed to learning movements or principles.
I've actually been an instructor of all three methods. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. But these days I focus my teaching on the third method, Tai Chi as a set of skills. If you are interested in learning more about this approach, I offer a no-cost introduction to kinesthetic, skills-based Tai Chi on my website at
Best wishes,

Also known as t'ai chi ch'üan, tai ji quan, tai chi is generally classified as a "soft", internal Chinese system of physical exercises designed especially for self-defense, meditation, and health maintenance purposes.  In Mandarin the literal translation for "t'ai chi ch'uan" is the "supreme ultimate fist", "boundless fist," or "great extremes boxing".  The idea of the "supreme ultimate" appears in both Taoist and Confucian Chinese philosophy representing the fusion of Yin and Yang into a single ultimate as shown by the Taijitsu symbol.

The philosophy of tai chi is not to directly fight or resist an incoming force, but to meet it in softness and follow its motion while remaining in physical contact until the incoming force of attack exhausts itself or can be safely redirected, meeting yang with yin.

Tai chi core training involves two primary features: first, solo routines, known as forms, which are slow sequences of movement that emphasize a straight spine, abdominal breathing and a natural range of motion; and the second, a type of sparring called "push hands" for practicing the movement principles of the form in a more practical way. Repeated practice with accuracy of the solo forms focuses the mind, retrains posture, encourages circulation and relaxation throughout the body, maintains flexibility through the joints while familiarizing a student with the martial application sequences designed within the forms. Other advanced levels of tai chi martial arts involve weapons, empty hand and 2-man forms.

Tai chi is also known as a form of Qigong that involves movement and/or regulated breathing.  Tai chi practitioners use methods of cultivating energy in accumulating, circulating, and working with Qi or energy within the body. The higher levels of Qigong commonly use special methods of focusing on specific energy centers in and around the body. 

There are 5 main tai chi styles: Chen, Sun, Wu, Wu/Hao, and Yang.  While the basic exercise forms are typified by slow, regulated breathing, many styles have advanced secondary forms of a faster pace. I learned from 2 tai chi masters who taught different Yang styles and although the core movements and martial applications were the same or similar, the choreographed sequences in the forms were quite different.


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